ThatsRacin

After two wins in four races, is Kevin Harvick truly a NASCAR championship contender?

Kevin Harvick has won two of the last four NASCAR Cup Series races, but does that make him a championship contender?
Kevin Harvick has won two of the last four NASCAR Cup Series races, but does that make him a championship contender? AP

What a wild, weird NASCAR season this has been for Kevin Harvick.

Really, you can’t talk about this year without acknowledging what he did last season. Harvick tied for a Cup Series-high eight victories in 2018 and advanced all the way to the championship race, coming up short behind Joey Logano. Still, he more than earned his place in the sport’s “Big 3” alongside Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch.

So coming into 2019, even as Ford debuted a new Mustang and NASCAR significantly altered its rules package, the assumption was — rightly or not — that he would just pick up where he left off.

Wouldn’t that have been easy.

Instead, Harvick struggled to begin the year, especially by his own championship standards. A handful of fourth-place finishes kept him near the top of the points standings, but he was never truly in contention to win...

Until finally, four races ago at New Hampshire, when he broke through. Since then, the inconsistency that plagued him for much of the first six weeks of the season has fallen by the pit stalls. He finished sixth and seventh in the two races immediately following New Hampshire, only to overcome a loose wheel and flat tire en route to Victory Lane at Michigan.

So, which Harvick should we buy into?

On one hand, it’s hard to ignore Harvick’s season of so-so racing — again, by his standards — and dismiss it entirely as “figuring things out.” Someone as experienced and thoughtful as Harvick shouldn’t need most of a season to get into top racing condition.

Then on the other hand, recency bias is a powerful drug. Watching Harvick these last four weeks has been a snapshot of last season, when he was a legitimate contender in practically every race. Factor in his pedigree as a former Cup champion and perpetual playoff stalwart, and it’s hard to argue against him.

Realistically, Harvick and the No. 4 team probably fall somewhere in the middle. One encouraging month does not a season make, nor does it guarantee a successful postseason run. It also shouldn’t be promptly discounted — two wins in four races is an impressive feat, and that becomes even more valuable if he can build upon those results.

Harvick isn’t quite to the level that Truex and Busch have hit this year — or even Denny Hamlin, truthfully — but he’s quickly gaining. And given that his window to win a second championship is quickly closing, I wouldn’t be one to bet against him making a run again in the next few months.

Brendan Marks: @BrendanRMarks

This week’s NASCAR race at Bristol: What you need to know.

Race: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race.

Distance: 500 laps, or 373.1 miles.

Where: Bristol Motor Speedway, a 0.533-mile concrete oval in Bristol, Tenn..

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

TV: NBCSN.

Radio: PRN.

Last year’s winner: Kurt Busch.

Also this week: Food City 300, Xfinity Series, Bristol Motor Speedway, 7:30 p.m., Friday, NBCSN.

Worth mentioning: Beginning next season, the Bristol night race will be a playoff race.

Who’s Hot/Who’s Not

HOT

Ryan Newman: A late fuel stop gave him enough gas — literally — to make it to the end of the Michigan race and into playoff position with three races to go.

Denny Hamlin: A fifth straight Top-5 finish shows Hamlin is peaking at just the right time of the year.

NOT

Jimmie Johnson: Another sub-30 finish at Michigan pushed Johnson out of the current playoff picture and in need of help with just three regular-season races left.

Clint Bowyer: He’s somehow hung onto the final playoff spot despite a number of poor finishes, but he’ll need three solid outings to hold onto that 16th slot.

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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